Push to increase Aurora campaign reporting gets push back

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AURORA | A proposal to increase the number of campaign finance reports from Aurora City Council candidates is drawing criticism for its arrival in front of council members months before the election. 

The proposal comes nearly five months before the municipal election. Five city council seats are up, and all incumbents are hoping to be re-elected to the dais.

“I think the timing is not a coincidence,” said council member and Ward IV candidate Charlie Richardson during a presentation of the proposed ordinance from fellow lawmaker Nicole Johnston. 

Johnston, who made transparency a tenant of her campaign for the Ward II seat in 2017, said she’s been working on the ordinance since February. It only got to council members in the management and finance committee in May because the April meeting already had a full agenda, she said.

The proposed change would require reports be filed at 90 days, 60 days, 30 days, 14 days and the Friday before election day. Another finance report would be required 30 days after the election. Currently, city code only dictates that candidates submit reports 90 days, 21 days, the Friday before and 30 days after the election.

Johnston said part of her motive for sponsoring the ordinance is the belief that special interest groups will donate more to local races this year because there was a swell in passed legislation that gives more local control on various issues. Those included measures regarding oil and gas, minimum wage and affordable housing measures.

“This year with a lot of the state legislation that’s passed, there is significant local control on various issues. It’s anticipated that more money, more donors will be active in this election,” Johnston said. “So in the interest of the public having more transparency on what is being donated, I wanted to be able to have that opportunity so we didn’t have such a gap between (the existing reporting days).”

In presenting her proposal, Johnston said during the 2017 election she accepted money from developers, Conservation Colorado, unions and from individuals. 

“If I can’t own that, I’m in the wrong line of work,” she said. “We should all be able to say this is it.”

Richardson, a member of the city council committee, said he believes the proposal to be “anti-incumbent,” adding that there is a “real undercurrent to get rid of everybody but the progressives” on the city council. Richardson said he’s seen campaign literature from his opponent that says Richardson is “beholden to special interests.” 

“There is a political agenda to this,” Richardson said during the presentation.

Johnston responded by saying “transparency is not partisan” and that voters deserve to know more campaign finance information before ballots are sent out.

Richardson attempted to take on a campaign finance reform ordinance earlier this year, but abandoned it after he said conversations with city staff revealed it would be a big undertaking and more time would be required.

Johnston said she had the same conversations, but decided to explore a bite-size reform: the additional campaign finance reports.

Another concern is whether the city clerk’s office would have the resources to notify and help candidates through a change in the finance reporting process.  

City clerk Stephen Ruger said his staff could work to implement the new procedure if it is the will of the council. He said his staff had already been alerting candidates that the ordinance draft was in the works. He also said the transition would be somewhat difficult because of a technological complication in the new software the city uses. 

Council member Dave Gruber, who chairs the committee, pressed Ruger on whether the office was ready to implement additional reporting days now. Gruber told Ruger to only answer “yes” or “no.” 

“We’ll make it happen,” Ruger told the committee.

“Steve, it’s a yes or no question,” Gruber said.

Ruger said no, but at several points in the meeting he said it could be done if the council passed the ordinance.

Gruber recommended the bill be forwarded to a study session of the full council with the recommendation the ordinance take effect Jan. 1, 2020. Council member Angela Lawson dissented, also adding that she thought it was “very unprofessional” of Gruber to only allow Ruger a yes or no answer.

Johnston said she would take the proposal to study session, but not with the 2-1 recommendation to implement the rules next year.

“That’s fine. That’s certainly your right,” Gruber said.